Summer Reading 2015: Life Changes Unexpectedly for Suburban New Jersey Mom
Much of woman’s first novel was written while she was commuting to NYC on the Montclair-Boonton rail line
- Credit: Beowulf Sheehan
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Each day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book -- from nonfiction to novels to poetry -- in which New Jersey plays a significant part.
By all appearances, Alice Pearse has a pretty balanced life: She’s a comfortable, book-loving suburban New Jersey mom living in the charming fictional town of Filament. She has a part-time job as an editor at a major magazine, but is able to look in on her aging parents while still balancing PTO obligations, spin classes, and book club dates.
But then her husband comes home one day with an announcement about a radical career change, and Alice’s story shifts. That story unfolds in “A Window Opens,” Elisabeth Egan’s debut novel, which comes out this week.
North Jersey is everywhere in the story, and in her acknowledgements Egan even thanks her fellow commuters on New Jersey Transit’s Montclair-Boonton line. She notes that it was while riding that train that she crafted much of Alice’s story, a tale of taking on the 21st-century workplace while juggling motherhood, daughterhood, friendship, and more.
In this excerpt from the start of the first chapter, we meet Alice just as her life is about to take a new direction.
In my book, January and February are just frozen appetizers for the fillet of the year, which arrives in March, when you can finally wear a down vest to walk the dog. That’s when I commit to my annual resolutions: become more flexible in all senses of the word, stop snapping at my family, start feeding the parking meter, take wet laundry out of the machine before it mildews, call my mom more, gossip less. Throughout my thirties, the list has remained the same.
On this particular sunny and tentatively warm day, I was driving home from spin class, daydreaming about a pair of patent leather boots I’d seen in the window of a store near my office. They were midheight and semi-stylish, presentable enough for work, with a sole suited for sprinting through the aisles of Whole Foods. Maybe I recognized a little bit of myself in those boots; after all, I fit the same description.
When I stopped for a red light in front of the high school, my phone lit up with a photo of Nicholas. The snapshot was three years old, taken on wooden bleachers at the Y while we were waiting for our son, Oliver, to finish basketball practice. Splayed across Nicholas’s chest was the paperback edition of The Cut by George Pelecanos; while he grinned at my then new iPhone, our daughters, Margot and Georgie, each leaned in and kissed one of his cheeks.
“Hey, what’s up? I’m just driving back from Ellie’s class. Since when does ‘Stairway to Heaven’ qualify as a spin song?”
Silence on the other end. I noticed a spray of white crocuses on the side of the road, rearing their brave little heads. “Nicholas? Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
“Nicholas? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just—” More silence.
I watched as a group of high school kids trampled the crocuses with their high-tops and Doc Martens. The light turned green.
“You just . . . what?”
“Listen, Al, I’d rather not have this conversation on speaker while you’re driving. Can you call me when you get home?”
I felt a slow blossom of anxiety in my throat. When someone starts talking about the conversation in the third person, you know it’s not going to be pretty.
“Nicholas. What’s going on?”
“I can’t . . . You know what?” I heard a noise in the background that sounded like a big stack of papers hitting the floor. “Actually? I’m coming home. I’ll be on the 11:27 train. See you soon.” There was a strain in his voice, as if someone had him by the neck.
“Wait—don’t hang up.”
But he was gone.
Suddenly, I felt chilly in my sweaty clothes. I distractedly piloted my minivan down Park Street, past a church, a temple, a funeral home, and a gracious turreted Victorian we’d lost in a bidding war when we first started looking for houses in Filament.
My mind raced with possibilities: Nicholas’s parents, my parents, his health, an affair, a relocation. Was there any chance this urgent conversation could contain good news? A windfall?
What was so important that Nicholas had to come home to say it to me in person? In the seven years we’d lived in New Jersey, he’d rarely arrived home before dark, even in the summer, and most of our day-time conversations took place through an intermediary—his secretary, Gladys, doyenne of the Stuyvesant Town bingo scene.
I called Nicholas back as soon as I pulled into the driveway of our blue colonial. When the ringing gave way to voice mail, I suddenly felt dizzy, picturing the old photo pressed to my ear. The girls had grown and changed since then—Margot’s round face chiseling down into a preteen perma-scowl, Georgie’s toddler legs losing their drumstick succulence. But what struck me was Nicholas’s jet-black hair. It had been significantly thicker in those days, and a lot less gray. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him kick back with a book, let alone look so relaxed.
I was about to find out why.
I spent the next hour repairing damage wrought by the daily cyclone of our kids eating breakfast, getting dressed, and supposedly cleaning their rooms but really just shoving socks, towels, and Legos under their beds. Eggshells in the garbage disposal, Leapin’ Lemurs cereal in the dustpan, Margot’s tried-on-and-discarded outfits directly into her hamper even though I knew they were clean. I filled out class picture forms—hadn’t I already paid for one round of mediocre shots against the backdrop of a fake library?—and called in a renewal of the dog’s Prozac prescription: “His birthday? Honestly, I have no idea . . . He’s not my son! He’s my dog!” Cornelius lifted his long reddish snout and glanced lazily in my direction from his favorite forbidden napping spot on the window seat in the dining room.
I kept checking my phone, hoping to hear from Nicholas, but the only person I heard from was my dad. Ever since losing his vocal cords to cancer, he’d become a ferocious virtual communicator. His texts and e-mails rolled in at all hours of the day, constant gentle taps on my shoulder. The highest concentration arrived in the morning, while my mom played tennis and he worked his way through three newspapers, perusing print and online editions simultaneously. Many messages contained links to articles on his pet subjects: social media, the Hoyas, women doing it all.
That day, in my state of anticipation and dread, I was happy for the distraction.
Dad: Dear Alice, do you read me?
Alice: I do!
Dad: Just wondering, are you familiar with Snapchat?
Me: Sorry, not sure what this is.
Dad: Reading about it in WSJ. Like Instagram, but temporary. Pictures only. No track record.
Me: I’m not on Instagram either. Have nothing to hide anyway.
Dad: I can educate you. These are great ways to stay connected.
Me: I’m on FB. That’s all I can handle.
Dad: Yes, but why no cover photo on your timeline?
Dad: Hi, are you still there?
Dad: OK, TTYL. Love, Dad
We live four houses from the station, so I headed over as soon as I heard the long, low horn of the train. By the time I’d walked by Margot and Oliver’s school and arrived at the steep embankment next to the tracks, Nicholas was already on the platform.